The Rangers defense improved dramatically overall this season, and it has become clear who the top four defensemen are. However, there are some questions concerning the bottom pair. Chris Drury has made it clear that the goal for next season is to make the playoffs.
A full six-man defensive corps will be necessary to accomplish this. Along with making the postseason, Drury has emphasized the need for more grit in the lineup and there has been news of the organization wanting to add a veteran defenseman. The top four seem to be obvious, but there are many options to fill the bottom two spots.
New York Rangers defense: Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren have emerged as the top pair
Even in their 2019-20 rookie season, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren often found themselves playing against other teams’ skilled top lines. Fox and Lindgren have developed a noticeable chemistry which helps elevate their play making ability in all three zones.
As a rookie, Fox impressed and made an immediate impact. He didn’t look like a newbie; he appeared very comfortable playing defense in the NHL which isn’t considered an easy task for a young player. Now, he has added an element of offense to his game that has propelled him into the Norris Trophy conversation. He led all defensemen in the league in assists this season with 42, indicating his play making ability. Additionally, analysts have recently compared Fox to Brian Leetch. Since the Tony DeAngelo incident that led to the defenseman’s banishment from the team, Fox has proven to be an excellent quarterback on the power play. It’s possible that Fox could eventually wear a letter as the team evolves and a younger leadership group develops.
Ryan Lindgren has been a pleasant surprise since coming to New York in a trade with Boston three years ago. He initially struggled slightly with positioning in the defensive zone but has since developed into a responsible defenseman. Lindgren also brings an element of grit and physicality that the Rangers lack. He’s certainly a physical presence, bringing big hits each game and not shying away from a fight. Being as physical and tough as he is, he sets an example on the ice that helps to develop a culture in general. Lindgren is still very young and as he continues to develop, the offense will come as well. There were a few glimmers of his offensive potential this season, and his game will only improve.
Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller are the most likely option for the second pair
Jacob Trouba mentioned in during his end of season media availability that he felt much more comfortable with the Rangers this year. He seemed to struggle a bit in his first Broadway campaign after coming over from Winnipeg in a trade. This season, he showed that he can be a solid top-four defenseman and a leader. K’Andre Miller spoke multiple times this season about how helpful Trouba has been to him. At 6’3″ and 209 lbs, Trouba’s size makes him a threat. He uses his reach to take away the opponent’s space and time, especially when paired with K’Andre Miller. However, Trouba plays his best when he plays a heavy game. He needs to make this a more prevalent habit going forward as the Rangers need more muscle.
Similarly to Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller impressed as a rookie, appearing to have little to no trouble adjusting to the pace of the NHL. Throughout most of the season, his defensive play was eye-catching though he did seem to experience a slight decline towards the end of the season. That could have been a result of the grind of an NHL season on a rookie even though it wasn’t a full one or a result of playing with different partners after Trouba was injured. Like Trouba, Miller has wonderful size at 6’5″ and 210 lbs but needs to learn to use it for checking as well as defending. Anywhere the Rangers can add more physicality would helpful as their mindset is currently too finesse oriented.
The Rangers must make decisions on Brendan Smith and Libor Hajek
While Brendan Smith is generally a bottom pair defenseman, he deserves credit for several aspects of his game. Overall, he doesn’t make many catastrophic mistakes and he’s versatile. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Rangers could choose not to re-sign him. They want to bring in a veteran defenseman, which Smith can continue to provide. He also has some playoff experience, but with making the postseason as the goal the Rangers may feel they need bring in a player with more playoff games on his resume.
Smith can also play wing, which is something that former Head Coach David Quinn flirted with last season. Chris Drury has expressed his intent of adding more sandpaper to the bottom six. Moving Brendan Smith to the fourth line would be useful in that case; he brings a physical presence every night. He has also been a valuable leader this season in acting as a mentor to a K’Andre Miller and taking on Tom Wilson in a fight after he injured Panarin. There should be some serious consideration from the organization before they decide to let him walk.
Libor Hajek is a pending restricted free agent this summer, and the Rangers have to decide if he still fits into the big picture. When he first started in New York, his play was promising but he suffered multiple injuries that kept management from seeing what he could really do in the NHL. This season, Hajek played much more for the Rangers, but wasn’t really able to reach a point of playing consistently effective defense. While he isn’t costing the team games, he also isn’t exactly capitalized on the chances he’s been given. With other prospects in the pipeline and the possibility of acquiring another veteran defenseman, Hajek simply may not be the answer on the third pair.
What about Anthony Bitetto?
The Rangers signed Anthony Bitetto last offseason, and he played 14 games this season. In those 14 games, he had one goal and three assist for four points. That’s fine for a defenseman, but he doesn’t by any means stand out offensively. Defensively, he sometimes makes too many mistakes when in the lineup and he was a minus-8. He acted as a sort of placeholder this season as he was able to come in when someone was injured. Though Bitetto may be a good insurance policy, he’s certainly not a staple in the lineup. He may be taking a roster spot from a younger defenseman that the Rangers want to bring to New York. There’s no sense in him just sitting on the roster next season and not playing, especially considering there likely won’t be a taxi squad.
If the Rangers can find some way to trade him, that’s always an option. However, they may be forced to assign him to Hartford even though it seems a bit ridiculous considering his age and the stage he’s at in his career.
Tarmo Reunanen and Zac Jones should be competing for roster spots
Prior to joining the Rangers briefly this season, Tarmo Reunanen posted impressive numbers in 21 games in Hartford. He had four goals and 13 assists for 17 points, and only 4 penalty minutes. In the few chances he was given in the NHL, he showed encouraging flashes of skill and was mostly diligent in the defensive zone. Overall, he seems to definitely be more offense oriented. If he does make the team out of training camp next season, he will of course need time to adjust to the NHL like any other player.
Zac Jones will also be vying for a roster spot out of camp next season and got an opportunity to show what he can do late this season. Being that the Rangers have already gotten a look at him may factor into whether he makes it or not. Analysts have described him as Adam Fox-esque. Considering what Fox has been able to do in his first couple of years with the Rangers, hearing that about Jones is exciting. Size may be a bit of a concern as Jones is only 5’10” and 176 lbs. That could play a role in the time it takes him to adjust to the NHL.
If both are on this roster heading into next season they will be competing for roster spots. That is a big if considering the Rangers desire to add more proven young NHL talent at the expense of some of their younger assets.
When will we see Nils Lundkvist and Braden Schneider?
Assuming the Rangers can get Nils Lundkvist signed to his entry level contract, he will also be competing in training camp for a spot in the lineup. Since being drafted, Lundkvist has continued to play with Luleå in the SHL. This season, he had 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points in 52 games. According to the scouting report on eliteprospects.com, Lundkvist is a “mobile puck-moving defenseman who likes to make quick decisions and join the rush. Lundkvist displays confidence with the puck on his stick.” His quick decision making will be useful in the NHL where the game moves much faster.
He has been in the Rangers system since the 2018 draft, and it’s time to bring him to New York. He’s had time to play against men in the SHL, and it likely NHL ready. It will be interesting to see what he does at this year’s World Championships as well. It will be curious if the Rangers don’t get him signed this offseason.
The Rangers traded up to draft Braden Schneider nineteenth overall in the 2020 draft. Schneider brings a physical style of play and good size to aid him in that at 6’2″ and 187 lbs. He will continue to develop physically and get stronger to be even more of a presence. He certainly does not shy away from big hits. His physical style is an integral part of his defensive play. He has a leadership quality as he’s the captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL this season.
Schneider also has offensive upside, posting five goals and 22 assists for 27 points in 22 games this season. It may be useful for the Rangers to give him a year in Hartford to further develop his game instead of making a jump from juniors to the NHL. Schneider probably won’t spend next season with the Rangers. It would be more helpful for him to play meaningful minutes in Hartford instead of potentially being the sixth or seventh defenseman on the depth chart for the Rangers.
JD back in Columbus! Red Wings trade buzz and more here.